Southern Scotch

Southern Scotch

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Excuse Me While I Thunder

What instruments we have agree:  It's best not to get toooo precious in the search for ways around monotonous repetitions of  'he said' in dialogue.  Some are shamelessly direct--another form of preciousness--in repeating it even where it doesn't need repeating:
  'It's raining out today,' I said.
  'It'll rain tomorrow too,' she said.
  'But what've you got under your knickers?' I said.
  'You didn't have to ask last night,'  she said.

Others wallow in the preciousness of complete nonattribution:
  Scene:  Bill, Bob and Marylou are out having a beer before...whatever.
  "You want another, Marylou?"
  "Who was that, Bill or Bob?"
  "I don't know, I'm already confused.  Bob?"
  "Better be.  I don't feel like Marylou."
  "But what about me?"
  "Which me are you?"

These and related thoughts are on my mind as we finetune the first pages for our beta readers.  Some decent working rules of thumb:  1)  in general, stick to 'said' but set the scenes up carefully--with the odd telling gesture--so that we always know who's speaking without having to repeat 's/he said'...2) Occasionally, a forbidden adverb can bring a 'said' sentence to life:  Lawrence Sanders was a master at this and at never overdoing it:  e.g., 'he said shortly'...'he said jovially'...3)  The right verb can also do the trick:  Now and then a profane phrase in Sanders will be followed by 'he thundered'--not 'said' or 'shouted' or 'bellowed'....4)  Break the rules now and then:  Brad Strickland likes to keep it simple.  But in one sentence he has a medical examiner 'opine' instead of 'say '--and we get a flash of character that would have been lost if the line had been toed.

Back to work, I say...and Get it right, I thunder.


  1. The reason we use "said" is to identify who is talking...if necessary. This rule is so embedded in a writer's toolbox that substitutes for "said" tend to take us out of the story. Indeed, the traditional tag is hardly noticed. I'm quick to break rules, but if you use "he opined," I'd like to understand the reason for its use. Unless, of course, the author is Danielle Steele, who has sold 590 million books breaking this rule on most every page.

  2. Fair points, Dane. But in the Strickland example, the word 'opined' suggests a cool, professional, somewhat pedantic tone. And to my way of thinking, Sanders remains the supreme example of an old pro who knows when to liven things up: Edward X. Delaney thunders once--or twice, tops--in the long Deadly Sin novels. And is occasional rage is one of his most appealing traits: the fire is still burning in this old detective's heart. Similarly, the rare use of an adverb such as shortly lets us know that a second or two has passed. Unobtrusive stage direction. But I agree with you that "said", in general, is unobstrusive and keeps us in the story...when constant switching from 'said' to 'enthused' to 'protested' to 'theorized' can shatter the narrative spell. Thanks for commenting.


Your comments are welcome. Just keep them civil, please.